A Brilliant Entrepreneur, Ford Was a Lousy Populist

Henry Ford had a better idea. Three of them, in fact. He didn’t invent the internal-combustion engine, but his four-cylinder, 20-horsepower Model T—Brewster green in the early years, then black and only black—became the “universal car” of the 1910’s and 20’s. “No man making a good salary will be unable to own one,” Ford promised. And he delivered. Ford didn’t invent the assembly line, but he reduced the price of his cars from $850 to $350 by putting the chassis on a conveyer belt in his factory at Highland Park, Mich., and assigning each of the 15,000 workers a clearly defined task. Ford attended to the demand as well as the supply side. He didn’t invent the culture of consumption, but he understood it better—and earlier—than almost everyone else. Industry, Ford realized, must manufacture desire as well as products, and make it possible for workers to buy into the American Dream. He doubled the standard wage of Ford employees to $5 a day in 1914, while reducing the workday from nine to eight hours. Henry Ford “has stricken the motor car from the list of luxuries,” an admirer wrote, “and made it a commodity, within the reach of all.”

In this thorough and thoughtful biography, Steven Watts makes a compelling case that Ford was the greatest entrepreneur of the 20th century. A micro-manager, he selected a special steel containing vanadium, which made the Model T lightweight and durable. Recognizing the value of a continuous flow of production, he supervised the design and construction of the plant at Highland Park, which covered 65 acres, and the even more massive facility at River Rouge. He knew that work on assembly lines was mind- and body-numbing, the principal reason that turnover in his company in 1913 was 370 percent. Raising wages far above the market rate, therefore, “was a piece of efficiency engineering, too,” because it made arduous jobs attractive.

Ford harnessed the power of publicity, “literally baptizing civilization with the name Ford.” He raced cars himself and then hired Barney Oldfield to drive the Ford 999 in the Manufacturers’ Challenge Cup. Advertisements encouraged the notion that in America, as Will Rogers quipped, “a man’s castle is his sedan”—a Ford sedan. And the boss didn’t hesitate to use his pencil on ad copy to encourage an ethic of consumption: “Buy a Ford and Save the Difference” became “Buy a Ford and Spend the Difference.” Thanks in no small measure to Ford, Frederick Lewis Allen has written, thoroughfares throughout the United States in the 1920’s “bloomed with garages, filling stations, hot-dog stands, chicken-dinner restaurants, tearooms, tourists’ rests, camping sites, and affluence.”

Of course, Henry Ford had a dark side almost as black as the Model T. Mr. Watts’ Ford is a pioneer and a populist who, “like Citizen Kane, became a victim of his own powerful personality and great success.” A living symbol of progress through technology and respect for traditional values, he forged a bond with millions of Americans that “transcended all reason.” But over time, Ford’s populism mutated, from a “positive, idealistic form … into a negative doctrine that searched for enemies and subversive agents, an impulse that created a mindless anti-Semitism and a hostility to labor unions.”

As Mr. Watts suggests, Ford’s conservative behavior and beliefs and his much-ballyhooed affinity for ordinary folks resonated with Americans as they grappled with modern urban, industrial life. When he said he would rather distribute money to the boys in the factory than leave it to relatives, newspapers canonized him for bridging the chasm between workers and owners. A skilled self-promoter, Ford encouraged a cult of personality. “Into his car,” a publicist proclaimed, “Ford has put the truth, integrity, simplicity, sanity, and commonsense which he himself possesses.”

Ford extolled the virtues of farming, foot races, fence-jumping and ice-skating; he went on camping trips as one of “The Four Vagabonds” (the other three were Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and the naturalist John Burroughs). He didn’t smoke, drink, gamble or go to the movies. He abjured coffee, tea, sugar, red meat and pasteurized milk. Even his quixotic pursuit of peace during World War I had its endearing side. Blaming the conflict on perfidious politicians and profiteering parasites, insisting on a referendum as a precondition for a declaration of war, he lent his prestige and pocketbook to a “Peace Ship” to bring mediators to Europe. Ford was, the New York Tribune declared, a “gentle fool who lives and feels and believes with the common man.”

His reputation was tarnished—and in many quarters destroyed—by revelations about anti-Semitism and union-busting behavior. The Dearborn Independent, the platform for Ford’s public pronouncements, endorsed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and printed piece after piece about Jews as “The World’s Problem.” He was sued for libel, feigned ignorance about the content of his own newspaper, and then threw in the towel with a cash settlement and an apology.

During the 1930’s, Ford believed that a cabal consisting of the DuPonts, Jewish bankers and Franklin Roosevelt had created unions to control industry. He refused to cooperate with the National Recovery Administration or to negotiate with the U.A.W.; he hired an anti-union thug as his chief of security and gave him authority over labor relations. Not surprisingly, the Ford Motor Company became the site of strife and strikes.

According to Mr. Watts, most Americans “preferred to remember the earlier Ford,” the man of modest tastes, partial to proles, the “loyal friend and defender of ordinary citizens.” Did they? And was there really “an earlier Ford”?

Except for an over-the-top animosity toward Wall Street, Henry Ford was never much of a populist. Nor did his views change substantially during his long life. Success didn’t spoil him: He was always, the evidence suggests, a “history is bunk” bigot—a know-nothing, anti-union, anti-government paternalist, self-absorbed, autocratic and often mean-spirited. Ford, we can agree, deserves the title Fortune magazine bestowed on him (“Businessman of the Century”), and he deserves the respectful, if unblinkered, treatment that he receives in The People’s Tycoon. But we don’t have to swallow the Watts line that he was a progressive good guy gone (far) right.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

A Brilliant Entrepreneur,  Ford Was a Lousy Populist